• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Saturday 09th June, 2007

Growing apart: UK children have fewer trusted friends

Not only are English children more unhappy than they were in previous generations, it appears they have fewer close friends. Latest findings from a 30-year study by the Institute of Psychiatry in London indicate that today's 16-year-olds are less likely than their counterparts two decades ago to have a trusted confidant.Youth Trends research led by Dr Stephan Collishaw has made a powerful comparison with a 1986 British Cohort Study survey of 16-year-olds by asking the same questions of 700 of their 2006 counterparts. One in five teenagers said they had no best friend to confide in compared to one in eight in 1986. More girls reported being unpopular today than in the late 1980s.Collishaw acknowledges how close friendships may protect children from mental health problems. When children are faced with multiple stress at home and in school, friends represent an important source of support.Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, his study brings to mind other investigations into the relationship between peer relations and anti-social behaviour. For example, in the current issue of Developmental Psychopathology Frank Vitaro and colleagues report that rejection and affiliation with deviant friends throughout childhood have been found to mediate the link between early disruptiveness and later violent behavior – but not later substance use.Their study of 375 children study follows earlier work by Collishaw and colleagues charting the apparently deteriorating mental health of children in England between 1974 and 1999. That study has prompted its Nuffield Foundation funders to support research into the potential causes of poor mental health. Candidates include patterns of drug and alcohol use, interactions with parents and experiences of stress. Collishaw's evidence has been considered by the UK Good Childhood inquiry supported by the Children's Society. Launched last autumn and chaired by Judy Dunn, also from the London Institute of Psychiatry, it is examining six themes; family, health, learning, lifestyle, friendships and values. The Nuffield Adolescent Mental Health initiative is emphasising the value of international comparisons.

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